Conceptual Cluster 6: Chora

by katja2013


Performativity in Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Images no longer merely document buildings but investigate the visual and spatial realities of the present (…) these architects (Diller Scofidio + Renfro) make contemporary space intelligible, playful, and unpredictable by controlling how and what we see and cannot see.[1]

Judith Butler proposes that matter is “clearly defined by a certain power of creation and rationality,” so that to know the “significance of something is to know how and why it matters. Where ‘to matter’, means at once ‘to materialize’ and ‘to mean’.”[2] If the body then is clearly matter, how that body comes to materialize, mean, or matter is contingent on its origination, its transformation, and its potentiality. The body’s intelligibility therefore is not a given but is produced. Butler identifies the production of this intelligible body at the site of performativity or its “specific modality of power as discourse.” Sex and gender are both social and historical constructions according to Butler.[3]

Working in the spatial disciplines means, to look at how place and gender are performed. On the subjective level on which we perceive objects and the objective level that determines how and what we are able to perceive.

As an example of a practice which has experimented with this specific performativity and intelligibility I will look at the work of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R).

Around the 1980s, the focus of architectural theory had shifted from autonomy and linguistic semiotic approaches, towards cultural criticism and critical theory, concerns with constructions of subjectivity and gender, power and property and other themes, came to the fore in it spatial and constructional dimensions.

In a project like The withdrawing Room D+S used in a different and higher register of exposition the autonomous working of architecture and its self-referentiality of the 70s, by folding it into various discourses of context and exteriority, recalibrated according to what is sayable or thinkable in the idiolects of psychoanalysis, feminism, and other theoretical systems that seek to analyse the hidden structures of domestic life. [4]

This, what they called scanning, meant disclosing the extrinsic, ideological structures that contaminate and complicate the intrinsic, supposedly pure forms and techniques of architecture. [5] This intelligibility (in Butler’s terms), a disclosure of ideologies has become central to the work of Diller + Scofidio.

Work based on experience with everyday life (…) in their investigations of domestic space, the withdrawing Room (1987). It also introduced a predilection for viewing contemporary culture as a system of signs to be read, performed, and, most optimistically, rewritten. [6]

DS+F describe their work as an exploration of vision, vision in the partial sense as Haraway explains,The “eyes’ made available in modem technological sciences shatter any idea of passive vision; these prosthetic devices show us that all eyes, including our own organic ones, are active perceptual systems, building on translations and specific ways of seeing, that is, ways of life.”[7]

Their work explores new materials, shifting definitions of the body, and novel modes of architectural transparency. Or as Diller herself says: our interest lies in interrogating spatial conventions of the everyday. Their work produces connections between different levels of existence, not by presenting us with representation, but rather by scanning for the contradictions, gaps, and occlusions that prevent us from gaining any perspective on our situation beyond the immediate reified moment and its ideological closures.

Starting form deconstructing the everyday, as in the folded shirt project, Bad Press (1993) This series of ‘mis-ironed’ men’s white dress shirts examines ironing as one among many household tasks conventionally guided by principles of motion economy, With their abnormal creases and origami-like folds, the Bad Press shirts are the various results of ironing having been freed from the aesthetics of efficiency.[8] Showing how the body’s intelligibility is produced. Through a creation of displacement, in itself a performance, DS+R question the rationality of the action of ironing.

Their understanding of architecture as involved in the display of performers and audiences in space becomes visible in the Brasserie (Seagram Building, Mies vd Rohe, New York), a design in which their concerns with media technology, theatricality, and public space became mainly explicit in the dramatic entering into the dining space. In the theatrical performativity the value system is shown. The aspirations of the studio was to ‘use both architecture and theatre, merged with aspects of performance and art, to celebrate the social aspects of dining’; by the roles played out of man and woman, gender performativity, voyeurism is made explicit. By making subversive gestures at power through speech (architectural syntax). The entrance of every visitor is captured by a camera and displayed with a little delay onto fifteen monitors above the bar, the theatricality is being emphasised in the way you have to make an entrance over the stairs that are jumps into the dining, giving you the opportunity to overlook, but mainly to be seen.

The way DS+R are working reminds me besides Butler of the way Donna Haraway described feminist objectivity as it makes room for surprises and ironies at the heart of all knowledge production; we are not in charge of the world. We just live here and try to strike up noninnocent conversations by means of our prosthetic devices, including our visualization technologies.

Reflecting on the discipline of architecture engaging with the everyday in the ‘real’ world without becoming self-referential or about any truth finding, instead finding new ways of working for every new project on the way. With an evident visible joyfulness, full of indirect suggestions about how to live in the contemporary world, works as constant reminder of the indispensability of humour and irony. An inspiring reminder, that imagination and commitment to the public realm has the capacity to question commodification. However with their ever-questioning performance it becomes less clear what kind of world they are after, beyond what they make intelligible.


[1] Edward Dimenberg. Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Architecture after Images. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013)

[2] Judith Butler , ‘Bodies that Matter’, in Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, London: Routledge, 1993

[3] Jane Rendell. Tendencies and Trajectories: Feminist Approaches in Architecture. In C. Greig Crysler, Stephen Cairns, Hilde Heynen, eds. The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory, London: SAGE Publications, 2012.

[4] K. Michael Hays. Scanners in Maxwell L. Anderson et al. Scanning the aberrant architectures of diller + scofidio (New York: Witney Museum of American Art, 2003)

[5] K. Michael Hays. Scanners in Maxwell L. Anderson et al. Scanning the aberrant architectures of diller + scofidio (New York: Witney Museum of American Art, 2003)

[6] Edward Dimenberg. Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Architecture after Images. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2013)

[7] Donna Haraway , ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives’, in Feminist Studies, pp. 575–599, 1988.

[8] Maxwell L. Anderson et al. Scanning the aberrant architectures of diller + scofidio (New York: Witney Museum of American Art, 2003)